Ballots and Bloodshed: An Election Update from Guatemala

Photo illustration by Smack.

On November 9th Guatemalan voters soundly rejected the candidacy of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt who presided over the worst parts of that country’s civil war during the early 1980s. This was the second election held since the 36-year civil war ended in 1996. During much of the campaign, it had seemed that Montt would return to power thanks in large part to widespread intimidation by paramilitaries, or former members of the Civil Defense Patrols, or "ex-PACs," connected to Montt’s extreme right wing party, the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG). Along with widespread fraud the campaign saw at least 28 politicians and activists murdered.
Another central issue at play was Montt’s continued tenure in Congress. As a legislator he was immune from prosecution for his past war crimes. When all the votes were counted, Montt’s party not only lost the presidency, he lost his seat. That means he could be prosecuted, but chances of this are very slim.

The two candidates competing in the December 28 runoff, Oscar Berger and Alvaro Colom, are both ardent free marketers and unlikely to challenge Montt, who is favored by many of the country’s rich. But more importantly the FRG-affiliated paramilitaries have reemerged with a virulence not seen for a decade. Their election intimidation may have whetted their appetite for further extra-parliamentary activity and both candidates in the runoff are pandering to the FRG base for support.

Montt first came to power in a military coup in 1982, ruling with unparalleled cruelty, and ample covert US aid, for 18 months until he himself was deposed in another coup. During the worst ten years of the war, four hundred Mayan villages were razed, their inhabitants murdered, raped and mutilated, the survivors then driven into the jungles or forced to join the Civil Patrols. The military used the Mayan patrollers as torturers and cannon fodder in the war. Montt engineered the very worst of these campaigns.

The specter of that terrifying era haunted the election. For example on July 24th, five thousand masked ex-PAC and FRG thugs rampaged through the capital, Guatemala City, shooting into the offices of human rights groups, beating journalists, erecting roadblocks, and paralyzing the city, demanding the return of Montt. And it was this violence that forced the Supreme Court to allow Montt to run, although he had been previously banned.

The following months saw more of the same: break-ins at human rights offices, harassment of Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu and abduction of journalists. In all these cases the FRG and ex-PACs are blamed.

Outside the capital there was similar mayhem. In El Quetzal, San Marcos Province and Cuyotenango in Suchitepequez, thugs rushed voting centers and seized ballots, setting them ablaze. In Cantabal, Ixcan, the re-elected mayor of the party of the former guerrilla army, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), received death threats and was rushed out of town along with election officials. San Pedro Ayumpuc’s residents demonstrated against the FRG defeat by kidnapping the town’s mayor. FRG partisans in San Martin Jilotepeque destroyed the town hall and attacked the police.

Against this backdrop it is hard to be hopeful about Guatemala’s immediate political future, regardless of which candidate wins the run-off. Efrain Rios Montt may have been defeated but his style of politics and the ruthless ex-PAC remain.

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